September 22, 2018

Diminishing Heschel

Today we received an email from UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies.The mailing reported on the impressive array of programs that the Center seems to be constantly sponsoring. One program, however, caught our eye, a conference on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—“Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity”—to take place on the UCLA campus and at UCLA Hillel on May 3 and 4.

The conference has a noted lineup of speakers and panelists ranging from UCLA professor David Myers to Heschel’s daughter Susannah Heschel (a professor at Dartmouth College) to Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum.

Amid the scholars and noted authorities one name stands out, the keynoter, Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary. West, a self-proclaimed prophet, who has come to study Heschel of late, is not known for his intellectual heft or rigor (Leon Wieseltier described his early academic work as “almost completely worthless”). Former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers, derided some of West’s output when he was still a professor there as an “embarrassment to the university.” West’s colleague in African American studies, Prof. Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University (a friend of West for over 30 years), recently wrote in The New Republic that “I knew Summers was right when he pointed to West’s diminished scholarly output.”

However, the caliber of scholars that the Center for Jewish Studies chooses to invite is the conveners’ business, not ours.

What is of concern is their decision to invite Cornel West to a Center for Jewish Studies convocation because of what he represents. While they have every right to invite scholars, clerics, or people off the street to present at their conference, one has to question the reasoning that would invite a virulent critic of the state of Israel and an advocate for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel to a conference not only sponsored by the CJS but on the subject of one of American Jewry’s most revered figures, Rabbi Heschel.

Academic freedom allows all forms of silliness to occur on campuses across America, unlike virtually any other institution in American life, academia allows its brethren to ignore and frustrate the wishes, intentions and policies of its administrators, trustees and donors with impunity. And so should it be.

But academics’ decisions should not be above questioning and criticism.

It is insulting to memorialize Rabbi Heschel, a Jewish leader who extolled the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel with the likes of West.

Heschel made clear that “The Jewish people has never ceased to assert its right, its title, to the land of Israel. This continuous, uninterrupted insistence, an intimate ingredient of Jewish consciousness, is at the core of Jewish history, a vital element of Jewish faith.” Heschel also clarified the right of Jews to defend themselves, “We have a right to demand, ‘Love they neighbor as thyself.’ We have no right to demand, ‘Love they neighbor and kill thyself.’ No moral teacher has ever asserted, ‘If one stands with a knife threatening to kill you, bare your heart for him to murder you.’ There is no moral justification for self-destruction.”

In stark contrast, West has urged that American institutions divest from investments in Israel because, “the Israeli occupation of my Palestinian brothers and sisters is a crime against humanity. They are killing hundreds daily (sic) —but where are the voices?” He is an apologist for violence against Israelis, “there will be no security for our Jewish brothers and sisters—who have a right to security after 2,000 years of vicious hatred—as there can be no security predicated on violence.”

He was recently at Stanford to urge that the university adopt a policy of divestment from Israel, as always wrapped in the garb of his “prophetic” wisdom. Pompously, he described his condemnation of Israel as “based on moral criteria and spiritual standards that have to do with keeping track of the humanity of persons” (whatever that means). He then proceeds to argue that “Gaza is not just a ‘kind of’ concentration camp, it is the hood on steroids.” He urged action against Israel, “Well first I think we have to be very clear that the call for the end of the vicious Israeli occupation is today a kind of litmus test for progressives, because you have to sacrifice so much.”

West’s venom includes impugning those who are its friends and supporters. Last summer he spoke at a Washington, D.C. anti-Israel rally and attacked President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as war criminals,

And what I want to say to my Black brother in the White House: Barack Obama is a war criminal – not because he’s Black, or half-African and white – but because his drones have killed 233 innocent children, and because he facilitates the killing of innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and it would be true anywhere else.
Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal — not because he’s Jewish, but because he has chosen to promote occupation and annihilation.

The CJS may claim that the conference is about Heschel and that West’s bizarre and hostile comments are on a separate topic, only tangentially related to “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. That will be a hard argument for the Center’s head, Todd Presner, to make.

He recently cancelled a long-planned appearance at the University of Illinois because the university had denied tenure to a professor of American Indian Studies for a series of truly incendiary comments about Israel and Jews.(see below)*  The University pointed out that the professor (Steven Salaita) who was scheduled to teach classes comparing issues related to the experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians, “lacked the professional fitness to serve on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.” Despite that finding and the nature of Salaita’s comments, Presner didn’t want his name to be connected to the university’s because to speak, he wrote to the university president, “would be to condone your actions and the leadership of your office and your board.” 

Apparently, for Presner, trumpeting a professor with manifest hostility to Israel and its supporters as a keynoter at a convocation on Heschel is not “condoning” West’s nasty rhetoric and message. Why he claims righteous indignation with the University of Illinois’ action and not West’s isn’t clear.

It is a sorry day when a Center for Jewish Studies allows a manifestly hostile, angry, and anti-Israel spokesman to accrue the legitimacy he desperately seeks (“he hungers for the studio” according to Dyson) by exploiting its good name and its reputation. It has chosen to diminish its own conference with a self-important keynoter who has, in the words of his colleague, Prof. Dyson, “a callous disregard for plural visions of truth, West, like the prophet Elijah, retreats into a deluded and self-important belief in his singular and exclusive rightness.”

His “rightness” is wrong.

* Salaita's tweets and comments:

Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a monstrous colonial regime.”

“If #Israel affirms life, then why do so many Zionists celebrate the slaughter of children? What’s that? Oh, I see JEWISH life.”

“Zionists: transforming antisemitism [sic] from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”

“Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”

On June 19, 2014, after three Israeli teenagers were reported kidnapped and presumed dead, Dr. Salaita posted a statement on Twitter which read: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the f**king West Bank settlers would go missing.” Dr. Salaita continued to post this comment even after the three teens were found murdered later that month.